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A League of His Own: Tom Hanks, American Icon

He can crack jokes in line for the men’s room, and then go out and inaugurate a president

December 10, 2012 11:30 AM ET
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Tom Hanks
Sam Jones

Tom Hanks has a problem with his dressing room.

The two-time Oscar winner and generally agreed-upon national treasure has just arrived backstage at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, dragging a duffel bag in each hand with his wife, Rita Wilson, trailing behind. (Wilson's wearing a neck brace, for some reason.) It's been 35 years since Hanks made a living in a place like the Freud – a 567-seat theater whose last big show was a student production of A Chorus Line – and though he has a reputation as a down-to-earth, easygoing guy, he's also, at this point, used to a certain level of comfort – something befitting his station as a man who dines with prime ministers and breakfasts with presidents. So when he sees the piece of computer paper taped to the door of the cramped dressing room he and Wilson are supposed to share, and frowns, the look on his face says there's a problem.

When he locates a PA, Hanks doesn't beat around the bush. "Hey, this dressing room," he says, still holding his bags. "We don't need our own. Give that to somebody else! We can split up – boys and girls." Then, a mischievous smile: "You know – her with the boys, me with the girls."

What? You thought he was going to complain? Come on! This is Tom Hanks. The Nicest Guy in Showbiz. Mr. America's Sweetheart. You could probably put him in the Staples Center men's room and he'd spend the next three hours passing out paper towels. Yes, he recently made headlines at the Toronto International Film Festival when, during a press conference for his new movie Cloud Atlas, the centuries-spanning sci-fi epic from the directors of The Matrix, he sniped at organizers for [running their] "celebrities through a pen like we're bulls on the way to slaughter." But when a guy has a rep as such an all-consuming mensch that a minor gripe like that qualifies as a scandal, he's probably a stand-up dude.

Hanks' rise to stardom has been pretty remarkable, when you think about it. It's been often observed that he's a throwback – a Norman Rockwell type who uses words like "kooky" and "holy smokes" and would be right at home in a Frank Capra film. But over the past decade or so, he's also become our de facto national consciousness, the cool history professor who tells us stories about who we imagine ourselves to be. He's gone from being the guy you want to hang out with at the cocktail party to a bona fide American icon (whom you want to hang out with at the cocktail party).

Hanks came of age during the turbulent Sixties, and he responded not by becoming cynical about America but by embracing it. He's a city-on-a-hill kind of a guy – earnest, and without skepticism. He makes films – ones he stars in (the war ones, the space ones) and ones he produces (the war ones, the space ones) – that speak to our past, our future, our best natures. He takes this role very seriously. One of the few bumpy moments in his otherwise un-bumpy career came when Hanks slammed the proponents of California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 as "un-American" – an accusation that, for him, sounded like the worst criticism he could possibly imagine. Even when he walked it back later, admitting that "nothing could be more American" than voting your conscience, implicit in his apology was the heartfelt notion that American values were worth striving for.

"I think it's a damn fine nation, without a doubt," Hanks says. "I don't feel responsible to go off and promote some kind of rah-rah American agenda. But there's something about the will and the perseverance and the willingness to get it done that only Americans can do. That's not jingoistic, and it doesn't make us better than anybody else – but when Americans put their minds to it, stuff happens."

Hanks is at UCLA today to do a benefit for the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, a nonprofit run by his friend Ben Donenberg. Each year, he and Wilson wrangle a dozen of their actor pals – Billy Crystal, Martin Short, William Shatner – and put on one of the Bard's comedies. This year it's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which they're doing as a psychedelic Sixties musical with lots of tie-dye and boomer songs. They meet up around lunchtime, do a table read and one dress rehearsal, and then perform a few hours later for people who have paid up to $1,000 per ticket – the wackier and more screwed-up, the better. "The whole message is, this is not medicine," Hanks says. "You do not have to work at this. I called up Tony Hopkins to do it one year, and he said" – here Hanks slips into a perfect patrician Anthony Hopkins accent – "'Look, I'm asked to do this all the time, and it's absolutely dreary. It's a hideous occasion with a bunch of snooty people.' And I said, 'Tony – we rip it up! We play everything for maximum laughs.' And he said, 'Oh, all right. That sounds like fun!'"

Dressing-room situation sorted, Hanks heads off to catering to get some coffee. He's drinking it with honey these days, because he's trying to cut out sugar. "I ran into Alec Baldwin, who looks fabulous, and said, 'Dude, your health is so fantastic!' And he said" – cut to a perfect raspy Baldwin growl – "'Yeah. White sugar. I'm staying away from white sugar as much as I can.' You get into your mid-fifties and you find out you have high blood sugar, and you say, 'What the fuck? Me? No.' But, yeah!"

Hanks is 56 and still looks like a movie star – not bad for a guy who once described himself as having "a big ass and fat thighs . . . a goofy-looking nose, ears that hang down, eyes that make me look like I'm part Chinese and . . . a gut I've got to keep watching." As he sits outside in a blue polo, Levi's and brown work boots, the least-becoming thing on him is his new mustache – a thin, John Waters-y number that he can't stop touching, as if he's worried about it coming off. "Crappy little mustache," Hanks says. He's growing it for his next role, as Walt Disney. "And much like Disneyland," he says, "my mustache will never be finished."

"Look at this stud!" shouts Cedric the Entertainer, who just showed up.

"Hey, man!" says Hanks. "You good? I'm so glad you're here. Thanks for coming through."

"Yeah," says Cedric hesitantly. It's his first time doing this. "It's fun, right?"

"Oh, it'll be a blast."

"Because I don't know any Shakespeare."

Hanks smiles. "That's going to be a plus."

It's obvious why Hanks is sometimes called the Mayor of Hollywood. He loves glad-handing, gabbing, shooting the shit. Meg Ryan once said that if she ever had to wait in a long line, he's the guy she'd want next to her. Once, at the Oscars, his walk-on music was "Hail to the Chief," but Hanks says he's more like the vice principal crossed with the class clown. "I'm, like, in charge of wisecracks," he says. "I'm the guy who'll sit you down in the cafeteria and say, 'You know what would be great? If the jazz band and the orchestra could get along.' And next thing you know, the problem is solved."

A few minutes later, Hanks heads to the bathroom to take a piss. It's not as epic a piss as the 49-second monster he took in A League of Their Own, or as painful as the one he took with the urinary-tract infection in The Green Mile, or as intergalactic as the zero-gravity one he shot into space in Apollo 13, or even as urgent as the one he had to take in Forrest Gump after chugging all those Dr Peppers at JFK's White House party. But it's an impressive piss nonetheless, a real workmanlike, everyman kind of piss that's only slightly lessened by Hanks calling it "a wee-wee."

While Hanks is zipping up, William Shatner shuffles by out in the hallway, rehearsing his lines from the song "California Dreamin'." It sounds just like you'd hope it would – Shatner declaiming Mamas and the Papas lyrics in that unmistakable Shatner cadence. ("Stopped . . . into a church . . .") Hanks turns to the next urinal. "That guy," he whispers, "is a goddamn genius."

Talking to people about Tom Hanks is an exercise in praise fatigue. His friend Martin Short says he's "a very polite, charming, soulful guy with a fertile, active mind." His friend Meg Ryan calls him "easy and fun and relaxed and smart and tough and just a pretty consistent character." His friend Nick Pileggi, who co-wrote Casino and GoodFellas and was married to Nora Ephron (who directed Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail), says he's "very thoughtful, incredibly bright, very entertaining and great company." And his friend David Geffen says, "He's interested in everything, he reads a tremendous amount, he's engaged." Talk to enough of Hanks' famous friends – and really, they're all famous – and you start to feel like Julia Roberts a few years ago, when she was tasked with speaking near the end of a Tom Hanks tribute and said basically all that was left for her to say: "All right, well, it's late and I'm paying my baby sitter overtime and I have to pee, so: Evvvvvvverybody fuckin' likes you."

Still, spend a little time around him, and a fuller picture starts to emerge. For one thing: He's a bit of an attention hog! Ryan, who's played his love interest in three movies, says it's a generous, non-ego thing – he knows people like him and he wants to make them happy. But he also loves to get the laugh. Take the time on the set of Cloud Atlas, when at the end of another very long day, Hanks had the whole crew in stitches by reciting his lines in whatever style they threw at him: Now do it like Al Pacino! Do it like Tennessee Williams! Like Tolstoy! Like Frankenstein! It was just like the time when he was a kid and his family was driving somewhere, and little Tommy heard a bird outside the window and said, "Hark, a mourning dove!" and was so amused by himself that he tried to re-create it for the rest of the car ride: "Hark, some cows!" "Hark, I have to go to the bathroom!"

Second: He can be a bit of a jerk! That's like saying Santa hates kids, but Hanks admits it's true. "I can be really harsh," he says. "I've had meetings where I've blown something completely out of the water just by opening my mouth. What I should tell people is, 'Let's agree to not have egos, and say everything that we think.' But I don't say that until after I'm a real asshole."

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